Quadrant, the Australian literary journal edited by John O’Sullivan, begins the month of July with a new feature sure to interest readers of The New Criterion. Starting this month, our own Roger Kimball will be penning a quarterly “New York Letter” meant to illuminate the situation here in our great city for Quadrant’s global audience. In the maiden effort Roger touches on the current mayor’s dissemblance, both in name and practice, and the return of 1970s-style sexual politics. It’s enough to convince one that the bad old days are, in fact, here again.
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Death of the Virgin (ca. 1000)/ © Worcester Art Museum, all rights reserved.
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A “normal” Narva
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by James Bowman
Hilllary Clinton/ Courtesy of Manuel Balce Ceneta (AP)
Hillary Clinton came to Northern Virginia, where I live, the other day and addressed what The Washington Post described as “a crowd of several thousand Democrats” at George Mason University. “Several,” as we learned a few lines further down, meant two—although the Patriot Center where she spoke can hold ten. Thousands, that is. This is not a traditional meaning of the word “several,” but then the article’s author, Rachel Weiner, was obviously getting into the spirit of the occasion, which was decidedly anti-traditional.
In fact, the point of it seems to have been to give Mrs. Clinton an opportunity to try out her new campaign theme. This could be summed up in her clever characterization of the Republican opposition as “the party of the past.” And what red-blooded, future-hugging American would want to vote for that? It was a confirmation, really, of what we could already have divined from Mrs. Clinton’s deliberate move away from the Democratic centrism of her husband to occupy as much as possible of the territory of the progressive left before Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley or Elizabeth Warren could take it away from her.
Actually, there have been times in American history when Republicans would have been glad to claim the title of “the party of the past.” Warren Harding’s victorious 1920 campaign on the theme of a “return to normalcy” comes to mind. Now Mrs. Clinton appears to be betting all her political hopes that 2016 will not be like 1920 and that the American appetite for “change” after eight years of it under President Obama will remain unslaked. That her speech was given on the same day that the Supreme Court handed down its decision on same-sex marriage—a change she and her audience seemed to feel particularly pleased about—may have contributed to her confidence in this line of attack.
The polls suggesting that a majority of Americans are now in favor of allowing men to marry men and women to marry women—although the question seems never have been put to them in just that way—may well indicate that she is right. She is certainly right in thinking that the Republican base is nervous, depressed and angry about this and other changes which have been coming along with increasing rapidity of late, and which their representatives in Congress, in spite of being in the majority, appear to be powerless to stop or even to slow. In fact, that is the most disturbing change of all: that democracy, like the Constitution, has simply been by-passed by what Jim Geraghty of National Review calls “the progressive aristocracy.”
Whatever they may think of gay marriage or the Affordable Care Act, lots of people who are not part of this governing elite, or the media who so reliably support and sustain it, must feel some disquiet about the fact that these aristocrats apparently enjoy, among their many other powers, the power of Humpty Dumpty to make words mean whatever they want them to mean. To these Americans, that and not the substantive matter of the two cases is likely to be the message sent by the Supreme Court in its King v. Burwell and Obergefell v. Hodges decisions. If judicial ingenuity could find a right to gay marriage in the Constitution, it could find anything in the Constitution. Anything at all.
So, in effect, Mrs. Clinton is betting that the majority of Americans in 2016, unlike the historically irrelevant troglodytes of “the party of the past,” will be glad not only of the social and political changes she favors but also to continue submitting themselves to the arbitrary power of this ruling class and that of the intellectual and moral fashions which it so slavishly follows. It may be, too, that she is right and that most people will be relieved to surrender their political power along with their traditions to these benevolent despots—whose good intentions and celebration of “love” must surely show that they can be trusted with them. Maybe most people just want to get on with the party. But if I were Mrs. Clinton, I don’t think that’s a bet I would be making.
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Will Bradley and Robert Mammana
On Friday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling: gay marriage is now legal according to federal law. On Sunday, New York's Gay Pride Parade unfurled like a party horn, all bright and loud through the streets of Manhattan. Brands (like Jell-O and Coca-Cola and Google) have already issued promotional ads and logos. Everyone on Facebook now has a rainbow-tinted profile picture.
But at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in the West Village, The Twentieth-Century Way is a reminder of another time. The production's palette itself—brown, black, and beige—shuts out any hopeful, sunny hues: this is Long Beach in 1914, when a homosexual act was a crime. Two struggling actors, Warren (Robert Mammana) and Brown (Will Bradley) become "Vice Officers" to make a living. In brief, they seduce unsuspecting men, trap them in compromising circumstances, and then throw them in jail. Fifteen bucks a head. Of course, a tangle of affection and lust complicates the simple scenario: both men trip over their humanity.
Directed by Michael Michetti, The Twentieth-Century Way has just enough zippy dialogue and fine acting to keep the two-man show afloat. Mammana and Bradley dance, lunge, and pace across the stage, making good use of a spare, drab set. (A few naked light bulbs, a clothing rack on wheels, some chairs.) While they each play a dozen different characters, their shifts from person to person are sharp, involving props and clear physical cues. Mr. Lamb has a limp, we know; Mr. Lowe perfect posture.
However, though the ninety-minute show never drags, it has a limited range. The Twentieth-Century Way plays the same tune again and again, and the jingle is less than fresh—it's a stale piece in our cultural repertoire. With Warren and Brown as puppets, playwright Tom Jacobson asks the following questions: Is identity a construct? (Yes.) Does daily human interaction involve a fair amount of acting? (Yes.) What's the difference between acting and real life, anyway? (A minor one.) Of course, these are legitimate worries, but they're also so "Deep" that they need a light, comic touch. Jacobson bangs at them with a hammer.
That's not to say Jacobson doesn't raise interesting points about performance, gender, and sexuality. He teases out the scenario's primary paradox: Warren and Brown are actors chasing other actors, men who've learned to pass for straight, hiding in a traditional society. But even here, he is a little heavy-handed and the play's central conceit (and flaw) crowds out the delicate issue.
This is the conceit: the two actors meet before an audition and, as they wait, agree to play a game of improvisation. (Both will impersonate “Vice Officers.”) The rest of the play is that game. In other words, the audience is never sure if Warren and Brown have stayed in the waiting room—every few minutes, one of them alludes to the “audition”—or if they’ve moved into the “Real World.” Jacobson is too clever by half: irksome ambiguity is the unfortunate byproduct of his dexterity. After all, the stage is already a stage. No need for a vague theatrical frame story.
“Twentieth Century Way” is a playwright’s play, more showcase than collaboration. Jacobson flaunts his talents (repartee, dialect, meta-theatrical ornaments): all the cast and crew can do is execute his script. And while they execute it well, while the production is full of movement and vigor, it lacks a backbone. It doesn’t have the strength of simplicity or the power of novelty.
In a moment of crisis, Warren tells Brown—“Anytime two men meet, it’s a contest.” This is a hard-hitting line and a hidden rationalization, Jacobson’s reason for hogging the limelight. He is pushing away artistic collaboration, since it involves conflict and turmoil. And though this is true, sure, collaboration can also crack open bell jars, knock down intellectual echo chambers. The Twentieth-Century Way needs a little more contest.
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Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Portrait of Adolphe-Marcellin Defresne, Graphite on paper, 1825/ Courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum.
The portrait is meant to give us a direct line into the soul of its sitter, or at least we’re told. It’s meant to expose underlying truths about the subject, using physiognomy to express that which cannot be gleaned from the subject’s name alone.
And yet, why is it that whenever I view portraits that go anywhere beyond the shoulders, all I can focus on are the hands? An old art historian told me years ago that the true mark of an artist’s draughtsmanship is his ability to render hands, due to the difficulty in producing the form, especially the digits. Whether true or not, this bit of received wisdom has lodged itself firmly in my brain, nagging even the finest works. (I’m reminded of Gainsborough’s portraits, which for all their virtues can feature hands that are almost sickly.)
And so it is with the Morgan Library’s new portrait drawings show, “Life Lines: Portrait Drawings from Dürer to Picasso,” on view through September 8, 2015. The show, composed of fifty-one works, all but four of which are from the permanent collection, takes a wide view of the concept of portraiture, which is to say, there’s no shortage of hands. The show is arranged into four distinct categories: “Self,” “Family and Friends,” “Formal,” and “Portraits?,” the most nebulous category, featuring works that may extend beyond the traditional bounds of portraiture. It’s a hallmark of the modern historical exhibition to attempt to look beyond the bounds of its topic, often as a “hook” for viewers who may find the traditional designations too narrow (or, heaven forbid, too traditional). Though the Morgan’s show does succumb to this trend, with the final “?” allowing for works that are questionably portraits, the show is no poorer for it, probably because portraits per se are always more than mere portraits. Some show hands and some don’t; some feature props and others are headshots. Ultimately, portraiture is a sufficiently broad category, with enough scope to render unnecessary the question mark.
Punctuation foibles aside, the show features a strong collection of works that reminds one of just how much there is to portraiture. Spanning roughly the late fifteenth century to the early twentieth, the works range from the preparatory to the finished, the group to the singular, the iconic to the unheralded. In short, the show reminds us that portraiture is not a closed genre, stilted by inexorable conventions. Portraiture is definitionally fluid, and the best pieces in the show make that eminently clear.
Particularly strong is the effect achieved through judicious hanging of pairs; though the walls each feature upwards of five portraits, it’s clear that some have been hung next to counterparts intended to bring out certain elements in both. Of the pairings, the most obvious is perhaps a set of two portraits by Ingres, depicting Adolphe-Marcellin Defresne and his wife Sophie individually. In Monsieur we see a gentleman at ease, jauntily leaning upon a standing desk with a pose reminiscent of the artist’s less-famous portrait of Napoléon Bonaparte as First Consul, which hangs in Liège. Completed just after the artist’s return to France, this pair displays Ingres’s virtuoso drawing skills, especially apparent in the folds of Monsieur’s waistcoat and the ruffles of Madame’s dress. There is none of his later perspectival distortion here, just simple, crisp lines befitting personal portraits. Oh, and the hands? His are better than hers, one resting atop the desk, quill at the ready. Hers disappear into her dress but it’s a credit to Ingres’s ability (and that of the exhibition) that we notice his and not hers.
Another prominent pair is that of Ducreux’s “Portrait of a Man (Toussaint Louverture?)” and Greuze’s “Portrait of Denis Diderot.” Here we needn’t concern ourselves with the question of hands, as neither portrait goes past the elbow. What’s left is a pairing of iconic images, one of the great Haitian emancipator and the other of the famed encyclopedist. Diderot has straightforward, weary eyes and a face entirely in profile, and the chalk drawing seems more a bust than a work on paper, fitting for a man of such stature. Ducreux’s drawing, also chalk, takes a different approach to its purportedly famous figure. The Ducreux sitter is vivacious, searching, altogether alive. It is not the funerary bust of Greuze’s Diderot, meant to celebrate a great man and the notion of the great man; rather, it is a searching and intimate portrait of an individual, giving no hint to the sitter’s notoriety. It should come as no surprise, then, that the portrait may not be of Louverture at all. Other theories suggest a servant in livery; the answer seems lost to history.
With so many pieces it would be difficult to cover all, but a few individual works are worth noting. Sargent has a wonderfully insouciant portrait of Paul-César Helleu, the French society painter known for his work on Grand Central Terminal’s ceiling. Leaning back, the artist is every bit the bon vivant, a murky watercolor shadow reclining with pleasure, elegant hand extended as if to suggest a forthcoming rumination. I’m reminded of Anthony Powell’s The Soldier’s Art, where a character opines, “How well one knows the feeling of loving the whole world after downing a few doubles.” Helleu knows and Sargent does too, capturing the feeling with ease.
Standing opposed to the spirit of Sargent’s watercolor is a work by Bernini depicting Cardinal Scipione Borghese (nephew of Pope Paul V) in his ecclesiastical attire. Here the sitter appears in profile, distinctive goatee and hat rounding out the head. Like Greuze’s Diderot, the portrait drawing has all the hallmarks of a portrait bust. Little wonder, then, that the drawing is, in fact, a study for the later bronze busts that Bernini executed of the Cardinal. Those busts have more personality than the drawing itself, but the chance to see the artistic process in motion, especially cross-medium, is a treat for the viewer.
And what of the namesake portraits, the Picasso and the Dürer? Nothing much to note here—Picasso’s (of Marie Derval) is early and figurative while Dürer’s (of his brother) is typical Dürer, exceptionally well-drawn and vaguely luxurious. Which is not say that this show is anything but a great success; just that when attending exhibitions it is almost always worth exploring beyond the catchy title.
View Life Lines: Portrait Drawings from Dürer to Picasso through September 8, 2015 at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York.
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Preliminary sketches of the White Rabbit Preparatory drawing (graphite and pen-and-ink on paper), 1862-1864/ © Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford
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This week: Hunters, Huxtable, and Hares.
Fiction: Hunters in the Dark, by Lawrence Osborne (Hogarth): The vagaries of the international publishing market never cease to surprise. One would think that, with the rise of the internet, there would be no sense in staggering the release date of a novel between two countries that speak the same language. And yet, Lawrence Osborne’s latest, Hunters in the Dark, was released in the UK in May of this year, and somehow won’t make it to our shores until January of 2016. Of course, through Amazon, one can order the UK version to the US, thereby circumventing the issue, albeit with serious shipping costs attached. Ultimately, it’s enough to make one wish for the kind of escape that Osborne is so good at depicting. His previous novel, The Ballad of a Small Player (Hogarth) described the journey of one Lord Doyle, a charmingly malicious confidence man, through the gambling dens of Macau. Osborne’s latest, also drawing on his extensive travels in the East, concerns the attempts of a schoolteacher to disappear in Cambodia. I look forward to reading Hunters; I’m just not sure when. —BR
Nonfiction: Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library, by Scott Sherman (Melville House): To the names Astor, Lenox, and Tilden engraved atop the main branch of the New York Public Library, should we now add Sherman? Scott Sherman is the dogged journalist who broke the story on the "Central Library Plan," a proposal to gut the stacks of the Carrère and Hastings icon and move the books out of state. His criticism of the plan in The Nation in December 2011 was soon echoed by Ada Louise Huxtable in The Wall Street Journal and Michael J. Lewis in The New Criterion, among many others, leading to a chorus of dissent that eventually forced the library to back down. His fascinating story of library politics in the digital age is now a hardcover from Melville House called Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library. —JP
Poetry: The Complete Poems, by Philip Larkin, ed. Archie Burnett (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux): The “Poets’ Corner,” that famed section of the south transept of Westminster Abbey, has a new honoree. Joining David Frost (the most recently memorialized) and manifold others, is Philip Larkin, England’s most eminently dyspeptic poet. Larkin was largely responsible for the 2011 memorialization of Ted Hughes in the Corner (by turning down the title of Poet Laureate, which went to Hughes), and now joins the man whose poetry he declared “no good at all.” Always quick with a prickly word, Larkin should also be remembered for the quality of his verse, collected in full by FSG in 2012. —BR
Art: Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland at the Morgan Library (Through October 11): It seems that every other anniversary is now cause for a celebration, remembrance, or book-writing frenzy. We’re in the middle of the hundredth anniversary of the Great War, two hundred years from Waterloo, and many more that I’ve probably missed. All this has occasioned the usual coverage (I’ve read no fewer than ten Waterloo book reviews in the past week), but that’s not for the worse; anniversaries remind us to assess critically at certain fixed intervals. So it is with the Morgan Library’s new exhibit on Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Though the museum could have waited until the two hundredth anniversary to bring this show together, the public should be glad it did not. Bringing Carroll’s original manuscript to the United States for the first time in three decades, the show is a welcome display of depth, also featuring Carroll’s original drawings to supplement John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations. —BR
Music: The Tchaikovsky Competition (Through June 30): The International Tchaikovsky Competition wraps up this week, with the final competition rounds finishing today and tomorrow. The winners' concerts are scheduled for Thursday and Friday, and while we don't yet know who will get that honor, I know I'm rooting for Alexandra Conunova in the violin division, after hearing her in the earlier rounds. Watch her spellbinding performance of the Sibelius concerto in D minor here, and follow the rest of the competition on medici.tv. —ECS
Support Our Friends: First Things is pleased to invite you to a memorable weekend of thought-provoking seminars and lectures on the concept of freedom. Join us as we study pre-assigned classics from Western Civilization in small-group seminars limited to 15 participants. There are no prerequisites to attend. This will be a rare opportunity to get together with like-minded individuals in a spirit of friendship and common purpose to discuss big, timeless ideas, and how they inform the cultural issues occupying our nation in recent years.
From the archive: Philip Larkin complete, by Michael Dirda: With Philip Larkin on the mind, here is Michael Dirda’s 2012 review of The Complete Poems and Selected Poems.
From our latest issue: Love bites, by Christie Davies: On James Gillray’s caricatures, an exhibition of which ended June 21 at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
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There is a new CD called Pas de Deux, featuring a concerto by James Horner. I was going to review it. Then the composer died. He was killed last week when the plane he was piloting crashed. I decided not to review his music—for what if I didn’t like it?
Then I decided I would listen to it and write about it if I did, in fact, like it. I have now listened to it. I like it well enough. Anyway, I will write about it, with due respect.
James Horner was one of the most successful movie composers of all time. Among his scores are Aliens, The Name of the Rose, Braveheart, Apollo 13, and Titanic. He began as a concert composer (for lack of a better term), but moved into movies because he thought classical composing had become bossy, rigid, and ideological (which it had).
Mari and Hakon Samuelsen are a brother-and-sister pair from Norway. She plays the violin, he the cello. One of their missions in life is to expand the repertoire for violin and cello. Man cannot live on the Brahms A-minor concerto alone. They also want to cause the creation of music that is easily lovable by audiences.
In 2011, they had an opportunity to play a private concert at the home of a Norwegian film director in California. The director invited Horner, who accepted.
The liner notes of the present album say, “It almost seemed that Horner wasn’t coming (a qualified pilot, he’d had trouble landing his private plane), but when he eventually appeared, the musicians gratefully played for him.” Then they asked him to write a concerto for them. He did (for a big fee, paid by a Norwegian foundation).
He gave his concerto a title: Pas de Deux. The work is in three movements, none of which are marked, really. The movements are labeled Part I, Part II, and Part III. Basically, they are fast(ish), slow, and fast.
The Samuelsens have recorded the work along with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vasily Petrenko. No fewer than six times, the liner notes describe the concerto as “hypnotic.” Is it? I’ll tell you, in brief, what I heard.
Part I begins with a C-major chord—or a playing around with a C-major chord. Then it goes to F major (the subdominant, for those keeping score at home). The music is sweet, harmonious, centered.
The solo instruments play bending lines, indeed resembling dancers in a pas de deux. There are also movieland touches, expressing wonderment. I think of the collaboration between Steven Spielberg and John Williams.
For those “bending” lines, I have some more clichés: The lines are “arching,” “yearning,” “aching.” This is music that can certainly be danced to. It is ballet music, as well as movie music.
The score has a feeling of fluidity. It’s almost watery, actually. It evokes (to me) the British Isles. This first movement is nice, enjoyable, easy on the ears.
Part II, i.e., the slow movement, is similar. It has some pleasant chimes. It’s lovely, romantic. It blooms into lushness. It’s pop-like, cinematic, pretty.
The third movement starts tense and martial, and later it gives off a sense of flying. Movie composers are good at this: Think of Williams in E.T. (Can that movie be more than thirty years old now?) Horner’s double concerto has a big, Disneyesque conclusion.
I have called this concerto ballet music and movie music. Is it concert music? Sure: If you play it in a concert, it is. It seems to me another film score, and a very fine film score at that. It would gag a lot of critics, because the presence of sugar is strong. But it would please a lot of audiences—which is not a bad thing.
It pleased me too. I’m listening to the concerto again right this second (and like it better than on first hearing).
Horner has—had, I guess I have to say—a substantial gift. This gift made him millions (presumably), and he deserved them.
The Samuelsens’ disc is filled out with music by three other composers. Those composers are Arvo Pärt (his famous Fratres), Giovanni Sollima (an Italian born in 1962), and Ludovico Einaudi (another Italian, born in 1955).
Sig. Einaudi is the son of the famous publisher, and the grandson of a president of Italy (Luigi, 1948 to 1955).
Don’t let me put down Horner’s Pas de Deux as so much ear candy. It is ear candy, yes, but my ears are enjoying it as I speak. The concerto is moving, too, and I’m sorry the composer is gone.
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by James Bowman
Le Chevalier de Bayard
In physics, so they tell me, the great white intellectual whale which has so far eluded even the brightest minds is what they call the “unified field theory” which would account for discrete descriptions of physical phenomena—such as general relativity and quantum theory—relations between which remain largely undiscovered. If there are laws of ratiocination analogous to those of physics, one of them must be that this urge to intellectual simplification and unification is a constant of human thought. It’s a theory, anyway. It occurred to me on reading an article in The Washington Post, which I took to be a progressive attempt to develop a sort of unified field theory of those demon -isms: sexism and racism — with colonialism thrown in for good measure.
It was written by one Lisa Wade, an assistant professor of sociology at President Obama’s alma mater—though it’s probably sexist to call it that—Occidental College. In it, Assistant Professor Wade purports to explain, in the words of the headline, “How ‘benevolent sexism’ drove Dylann Roof’s racist massacre.”
Sociologists use the term “benevolent sexism” (she writes) to describe the attribution of positive traits to women that, nonetheless, justify their subordination to men. For example, women may be described as good with people, but this is believed to make them perform poorly in competitive arenas like work, sports or politics. Better that they leave that to the men.
That seems to me a pretty poor example, as there is no obvious reason why being “good with people” should disqualify anyone from being equally good at work, sports or politics. Rather the reverse, I would have thought. But, clearly, Ms. Wade has a strong interest in making the position she is arguing against look as irrational as possible, even if nobody actually holds it.
It is interesting to me that she avoids the locus classicus of “benevolent sexism,” which is chivalry. Because women, as compared to men, are by nature relatively vulnerable and, in particular, vulnerable to sexually motivated violence by men, there once was a cultural movement which conferred a special honor on men who not only refrained from such violence themselves but who undertook to protect women in general, or particular women, from violence on the part of other men. Naturally, this cultural phenomenon depended absolutely on a prior cultural recognition of the differences between men and women—differences which feminism depends, equally absolutely, on pretending do not exist. Chivalry, therefore, in the feminist nomenclature must take its place, however paradoxically, alongside rape, as an example of “sexism”—albeit with the qualification of “benevolent.”
Got that? Now it seems that, along with other flotsam and jetsam of Western culture bobbing about in young Mr. Roof’s addled brain, there might have been some odd rags and patches of chivalry. It’s hard to be sure, since his reported, if quite unfounded, accusation against his victims that “you rape our women” appears to be a good deal more indignant about the imagined “our” than the imagined “rape”—as you might expect from someone in the process of committing what was clearly a racially motivated crime. But the important point, surely, is that both are imaginary. Let’s say that “benevolent sexism” formed as much a part of the killer’s thinking, such as it was, as racism did. Are not both of these -isms founded, in his case if no other, in sheer fantasy? How can you blame the actions of a deluded person not on his delusions—and his willingness to act upon them—but on the things he is deluded about?
The answer, I think, lies in the fact that, because feminism proceeds from a theory—that what it chooses to call “gender” is merely “socially constructed”—feminists tend to assume that those who disagree with them must have a theory of their own, a theory which the feminists then helpfully construct for their opponents only, subsequently, to demolish it. Such an intellectual exercise is obviously divorced from any reality that it may purport to describe, but it is how you end up casting a pimply, delusional hobbledehoy in the role of the Chevalier de Bayard, sans peur et sans reproche—in effect, taking him at his own valuation and therefore denying that he is delusional at all. Not that Ms. Wade says any of this, of course, but that’s the point. To say so would make the preposterousness of Mr. Roof’s identification as a “benevolent sexist” too obvious.
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( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)
In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
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